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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Back To Slush Reading

This morning I've been tweeting a number of posts I've written over the years on the subject of slushing. Good posts, all of them, but they got very few hits, for some reason, apart from the ones labelled "ASIM needs YOU to Slush!" or some such. 

I am going to write another one, anyway, and maybe this time there will even be a comment or two? 

Having dropped off the ASIM team for personal reasons, I've decided to continue with the slush reading, for which you don't need to be a member, but they paused for some months in reading submissions. Now it's back to business and over the last four weeks I have read twenty stories and passed on one to the next round. And I'm not sure that I should have passed that one on. The fact that I can't remember what it was about should tell you something about it. 

You see, I'm being more picky these days. Or maybe I've just been sent worse stories. The guy doing slush these days, with the retirement of Lucy Z, assures me I'm doing the right thing. Another friend still on the committee tells me they're being more picky too - perhaps too picky if, as she thought, a story now has to get a score of 3 to get into the slushpool - I told her that I couldn't remember ever seeing a story get a score better than 4! Three readers all giving it the top score of 1 is highly unlikely. I rarely gave even a wonderful story better than 2. It had to be something I thought would be an award-winner to get a 1 from me. 

 I do wish we had more people subscribing than submitting, instead of the other way around. That way, the magazine would be selling better and people would have a better idea of what's publishable and what isn't. Even if they just buy one ebook as a sample! 

But no. I sometimes suspect that many American stories we receive, from that country of many SF publications, are trying us because they were rejected - rightly! -  by all of the magazines back home. They get rejected here too. It would be nice to think they take the hint and retire those stories and try writing something else. 

 This isn't always the case. We've published early stories by the likes of Jim Hines 

and Ann Leckie and others who went on to win Hugos and Nebulas. Early fiction, mind you. Once they can get paid lots more back home, they sell there - and I don't blame them for that. But still - good writers do send us stuff that might possibly have been published in their own country. And our local international bestseller, Sean Williams, sent us a very short story set in his Twinmaker universe and was happy to do so. He mentioned it somewhere on line. And I published some wonderful stories by U.S. submitters in ASIM 60. They just aren't established writers; perhaps they will do well in future. I hope so.



Again, I'm reading in hopes of feeling the way I did when I opened, say, "The Wine Endures" by Anthony Panegyres(I published that in ASIM 50)or "What The Carp Saw(And Could Not Tell While Alive)" by Christine Lukas(I published that in ASIM 56, along with a terrific story by Lyn Battersby which I chose because we needed an extra story)or that beautiful story "Return Of The Queen" by an author whose name I've forgotten, as it was so long ago and he has never made any further sales, alas!

I keep hoping! 

So, just a little advice for future submitters whose stories may end up in my inbox, if you want to get to Round 2.

1. Get your grammar right. It's not the editor's job to fix it for you, unless you're paying someone to do it, and sending a story that is full of grammatical errors, as opposed to the odd typo, just shows the lack of professionalism of the author. 

2. If sending from outside Australia, don't make local jokes and references and assume readers overseas will understand them. If I don't know what they are, I'll reject the story out of hand. 

3. Kill your darlings. If a story is long, every bit of it needs to move the story on. If it doesn't, get rid of it.  I should add that when I have been sent several stories to read, guess which one has to wait longest to hear from me? Right! The longest one. It's a practical way for me to get through all of them as quickly as possible. And you know what? I have rarely read a story nine or ten thousand words long that didn't need a lot of pruning. While ASIM will occasionally take a longer story, it has to be brilliant. There is a limit to the wordage for each issue and if you're a subscriber who hated the longest story, you'd feel cheated, right? 

4. Don't submit a story that is number 6 in a so-far unpublished series which makes reference to things that happened in previous stories. And absolutely don't offer the whole series! Each issue is edited by a different person who can't be expected to commit a section of their issue to the latest episode of your magnum opus. Put the damned things together and try selling them as a novel somewhere. Don't try selling them to a magazine unless it does series and says so on its web site. If it turns up in my inbox, I am likely to reject it. If it's good, perhaps I'll reject it regretfully - but if it can't stand alone, I'll reject it. 

5. Ask someone to look at your story before submitting it anywhere and see if it makes sense. I've read a lot of stories in the last few weeks which made no sense to me. I said so, and why, in my comments.

6. Finally, check your market, even if it means shelling out a bit of money to read a magazine. If you sell, you can claim these things on tax. If not, at least you'll have had an enjoyable read or decided that this magazine is not for you. 

Well, now, off to read this week's slush - four short pieces, one long one. Fingers crossed I will be weeping at the beauty of at least one of them! 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Shopping At Dymock's - First Of The Year!

I'm now sitting at Ganache, a lovely chocolate and tea shop, having a well earned cuppa and three choccies. It's my usual reward for going out to buy books for the kids.

It was hard enough to get them to request what they felt like reading next - I have had more enthusiastic book clubbers in previous years. I mean, yes, they turn up at meetings and chat quite happily about things bookish, but there aren't the same cries of joy as they dive into a box of new books and too many of them read one book at a time and firmly refuse to borrow another one till it's finished.

But in the end, I had a decent shopping list from them - and, oddly, from some non members who turned up today, just in time, asking for such things as the next Magisterium novel(Holly Black and Cassndra Clare) and a series by a Polish gentleman which inspired a video game. And I found both! I bought the first novel in the series, and Book 2 of Magisterium(it was in the children's section instead of the YA and the Polish novel was in the SF). In the SF also I easily found a Terry Goodkind book for one of my book clubbers who wanted to read it because she had seen a TV show based on it. Fine. I imagine some of my spec fic lovers will read it after her.

There was a request for "more Diary of A Wimpy Kid, miss" from a Year 7 - I bought the latest,  which we don't have.

I'm afraid the vampire fans will miss out yet again. I did find a couple of the requested books, but not all, and the only Morganville Vampire book they had was the first, which we have. I must ask our bookseller if she can get hold of some more. I keep disappointing that young lady.

My young history lover, who was in my class in Year 8 the other year, asked for "anything about war."  I found a couple of books about WWI which he should find of interest but which Year 9 students can also use after him. One of them was actually on the CBCA short list a few years ago, but I must have missed it - I mostly read and buy the Older Readers books.

Speaking of which, I suddenly realised that they had some of this Year's Short List which I had missed. Two were Younger Reader books, but I bought them anyway. It's surprising what turns up there.

Anyway, time for tea and we will have some lovely new books early next term!


    Creative Commons image

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Calling All Aussie and Brit Spec Fic Fans!

Received in my email yesterday the following request from a lady doing her Masters thesis on diversity in speculative fiction. This is a subject that is being much discussed recently and it will be interesting to see what results she comes up with in her thesis. I'm going to do it.

Sorry, Australian and British fans only this time.

Take it away, Rachel Aitken!

Calling all science fiction and fantasy literature fans! I'm Rachel, and I'm a student from Scotland studying the MSc Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University. I'm currently conducting research for my dissertation, which aims to critically analyse racial and gender diversity within sci fi and fantasy fiction, specifically in the UK and Australia. I'm looking for participants to complete the following survey, where you will be asked about yourself, your opinions on diversity in the genre, with some case study questions regarding book cover decisions as well. The survey itself shouldn't take longer than 20 minutes, and I will be extremely grateful if you could complete it! It's for British and Australian participants only, as I am investigating differences in the genre between these two countries. The deadline for answers is July 17th. You can contact myself, if you have any questions, on Twitter (@rh_aitken) and you can access the survey here. Thank you again! 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Forgetting Foster By Dianne Touchell. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest, 2016




Foster Sumner is seven years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school and the beach. Best of all, he likes listening to his dad's stories.

But then Foster's dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. But the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.
 


This is Dianne Touchell's third novel. The first, Creepy And Maud, was on that year's CBCA shortlist. I admit to not having got around to reading that one, so this is my first experience with this author's writing. 

This story, about a family's having to deal with early onset Alzheimer's Disease in the father, is certainly not going to make its readers cheerful. Like the young hero, we know it's not going to go away, ever. Foster misses his funny, gentle, wise father and we miss him too, with all the flashbacks and memories of the delightful, ridiculous stories he used to tell. 

It's painful, watching the father deteriorate and the mother being frustrated and angry and constantly telling Foster to go play in his room when the adults have to discuss things. It's painful seeing how Foster tries to cope at school when word gets around. 

Clearly the author has done her research on what happens when Alzheimer's arrives, or perhaps her family has been through it; an afterword might have been interesting here. 

The story is poignant, yes, but... at whom is it aimed? The blurb says from thirteen up and it's slotted into "young adult" on the publisher's web site, but the hero is seven years old. Teenagers tend not to read books about characters that much younger than themselves. At the same time, the average seven year old is unlikely to get it. I understand that a lot of this couldn't happen if Foster had been thirteen or older; much of it depends on his not understanding quite what's going on, and the reader knowing.  But I think it might have worked better if he had been a little older, perhaps ten or eleven, and the language a little simpler, to make it more suitable for a younger age range. 

Available from June 22nd at all good bookshops and online. You can order it from Booktopia here


Just Started Rereading... Gilgamesh The King by Robert Silverberg





I do have a copy of this in paperback on my overflowing shelves, somewhere, but bought the ebook on an impulse after reading and reviewing Two Tales Of Brothers From Ancient Mesopotamia. Robert Silverberg is best known for his science fiction, but this is historical fiction lalong the lines of Mary Renault's The King Must Die, ie taking a character from mythology and asking how you can fit him into real history. And, I have read, Gilgamesh was a real person who had myths and legends wound into his life, a bit like Charlemagne, whom we know existed, rather than Arthur, whom we would like to think existed, but don't know. 

 I'm enjoying the reread so far. I'd forgotten a lot of it. This Gilgamesh starts to think of death, and how he definitely doesn't want it, when he is only six and attends his father's funeral.

 It's certainly based on the royal burial excavated by Leonard Wooolley, in which he had the theory that all those people who went with the king were there voluntarily. If you believed without question that the afterlife for most people was darkness and dust and you had the chance to go to heaven and party with the gods instead, in exchange for taking poison and lying down with the king in his grave, you might just do it, yes? Woolley gave some reasons for his theory; the layout was too neat, nobody seemed to have struggled and one handmaiden had her silver headdress in her pocket instead of on her head; maybe, he suggests, she was a bit late getting dressed for the funeral and forgot to put it on? It's a fascinating read, by the way, a book called Ur Of The Chaldees, which Penguin published many years ago; I was given it along with a number of other classics by a teacher who was clearing his shelves and knew I loved history. I used the book in my research for my book Time Travellers: Adventures In Archaeology(my one and only bestseller - still in print in the U.S., still bringing me royalties after 14 years).

At this point in my reading, Gilgamesh is not much past twelve and already a huge young man and sexually experienced. He discovered girls early and when his uncle takes him to the temple of Inanna to have his supposed first experience with a sacred prostitute, he has to pretend to be a virgin. 

I'm looking forward to rereading the rest. I always enjoy a book which has taken a myth or legend and shown me how it could work as history. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Two Tales Of Brothers From Mesopotamia by John Heffernan.Ill. by Kate Durack. Armidale: Christmas Press, 2016


Here is yet another beautiful picture story book from the wonderful Christmas Press. Christmas Press is a fine example of Australian small press publishing, springing up to fill a niche that the large publishing houses have left open. It only does a few books a year, but all of them are carefully and exquisitely produced, retelling folk and fairytales from various countries. 

This latest book is by John Heffernan, better known as a YA novelist. It retells, in language young readers can follow, part of the story of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu, who are as close as brothers. The two stories are "The King And The Wild Man" and "Brothers Battle The Beast." In the first story, the two men meet, fight and find themselves admiring each other. Gilgamesh has been a bad king, making the lives of his subjects a misery in his arrogance. The gods answer his subjects' prayers by creating a wild man, Enkidu, to match him, since he won't pay any attention to a lesser being. Then, in the second story, the two battle the monster Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven. 

Both stories are beautifully illustrated by Kate Durack, who uses ancient Mesopotamian styles as her starting point and gives them a cartoon-like flavour which, oddly, works. The stories and the artwork match well. The ancient Mesopotamian style will also give children some idea of the history behind the story. That's a good thing, because I don't think anyone does Mesopotamia in history any more; our Year 7 students study Egypt, Greece, Rome and China. 

Young readers might also follow up the stories told here. 

Just one thing: the author changes the ending, making it happier than in the original "Epic of Gilgamesh". But the original ending of this part of the story leads to the next part, in which Gilgamesh, upset by his friend's death, goes on his quest for immortality. And there's only so much you can fit into a picture story book, only so complex you can make it. That was recognised by Ursula Dubosarsky in her story about Romulus and Remus, in which she finishes by saying that she wishes she could give it a happy ending, but does say that Rome was founded as a result of this story. If children want to know more, they can always look it up. 

Suitable for children from about middle primary school upwards.

Available from the Christmas Press web site. 



Sunday, June 12, 2016

Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade By Kate and Jol Temple, ill.by Jon Faye. Sydney: Allen And Unwin, 2016





Jimmy Cook is finding History Week a bit boring until Ms Fennel starts banging on about Captain Cook. Then - bingo! Turns out he and Captain Cook have a lot in common. Here are three of the big ones: they are both named James Cook; they are both great explorers; and they both look great in a tricorn hat.




So, he makes a tricorn hat for History Week, which goes over very well, until it's clear he is going to keep right on wearing it, which his teacher and his mother don't like. Jimmy insists he is descended from Captain Cook, although Cook has no known descendants, and his goal is to go to Hawaii, despite all the dangers(volcanoes, scary animals and people who are rioting) to retrieve Cook's stuff, to use in his own exploration. There's a competition with a family trip to Hawaii as the prize, but it means buying a lot of a certain brand of breakfast cereal. Like hundreds of boxes - if he can get there before his rival Alice Toolie...

This is a gentle, humorous book in the style of the popular Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series,  with a delightful hero who just doesn't get that he may be confused about some things - and refuses to believe what he is told, even if it it right under his nose, if he is focused on something. He interprets things his way, always. There are plenty of references to various products with a slight name change, but which young readers will recognise and have a giggle over.

The illustrations are amusing, reminiscent of Andrew Weldon.

Suited for children from seven years up.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Continuum 2016 Begins!

I won't be going till this afternoon, and only because I'm on a panel. It clashes with a theatre ticket; I'd have changed it if I was going on my own, but I'm going with my sister and we have dinner booked afterwards, with our mother and my sister's husband, too much to fiddle with.

This afternoon's panel(after which I'm going straight to the theatre) is on the topic of the Mary Sue. I've offered to be moderator, because I have a feeling that one of us in particular has a lot to say on the matter and it might be simplest just to introduce the panel and throw a few questions at them. One of the other panellists is one of our two GoHs, who writes martial arts fantasies centred around Asian gods and a young woman who would probably dislike, and be disliked by, Buffy. I've only read the first of them, when it first came out. One comment on my review described the heroine as a Mary Sue, so it will be interesting to hear her own thoughts on the matter. People tend to bristle when their heroines are accused of Mary Suedom.

As a collector of fanzines for many years before they all went online, losing their quality filters, I have read the original story that coined the term "Mary Sue", my old pen pal Paula Smith's "A Trekkie's Tale" and found it on line, connected with an interview with Paula by the TV Tropes web site. I do have the zine, but it's too hard to find and just about everything is online these days. If you're a librarian, with the skill of using the right search terms, you can find what you're after. Incidentally, Paula entered the opening line, slightly rewritten, for the Bulwer Lytton competition for dreadful opening lines and won a place in the annual collection of entries, though not the competition itself.

I've read a lot of Mary Sue stories, even written a couple for fun, both in the Robin Of Sherwood universe, back in the days before people were paying me to write, and both were with collaborators. These days there are a lot of people complaining that any competent and strong female character is accused of being a Mary Sue. To some extent, that's true, but not entirely. And there is also complaint that male characters don't get hit with the same accusation. Not quite true; there is even an official name for such males, either Marty or Gary Stu(for many years I called him Mark Sam). But it is true that it doesn't happen as often, and my guess is that it's because mostly women write this stuff and naturally they want to write about female characters. And in my own area of YA fiction, there are quite a few Mary Sues, because the main audience for them is female. The girls I work with might laugh about the love triangles, but they enjoy them. Grab a random book from the YA section of a bookshop and it's likely to be about a girl who saves the world while having to decide between two very attractive boys. 

 Personally, I think Suzanne Collins made the right decision in letting her heroine marry the boy who had suffered along with her instead of the childhood sweetheart, but there are plenty of girls arguing about it and supporting the other one. Does this make Katniss a Mary Sue? Possibly, but not in a derogatory sense. She's not Supergirl. She is just someone who does what she has to do and would really rather not have to do it, and when it's all over, she's not ruling the world or a Queen or a President. 

Can you have a canon Mary Sue? I think so. Think of Miramanee in Star Trek TOS. She fits into a category I'd describe as the Sweet Young Thing. She's a Native American priestess in a society which was set up by a mysterious race called the Preservers, who went around dropping endangered species on other planets to let them survive somewhere else. And she has the misfortune of being Captain Kirk's love interest - even worse, being married to him and pregnant with his child. You might as well hand her a red shirt to wear; she's going to be dead by the end of the episode.  There were a lot like her in fan fiction. 

I know one of our panellists wants to discuss Rey from the latest Star Wars movie, who has been called a Mary Sue. I was surprised to hear that; as far as I'm concerned, she is just the Luke Skywalker of this trilogy, and novpbody, as far as I know, ever called him a Gary Stu/Mark Sam. She's just the protagonist of the Hero's Journey, just like Luke. 

Anyway, we'll see how the panel goes. I'm doing two more on Monday, one on the YA love triangle, the final one on children's fiction. Those should be fun!